Women Guards Still Cannot Touch Male Prisoners at Gitmo

Guards at Joint Task Force Guantanamo -- both women and men -- have filed 15 gender-discrimination complaints. They are outraged by an order that bans female guards from touching male detainees. (Navy photo/Elisha Dawkins)
Guards at Joint Task Force Guantanamo -- both women and men -- have filed 15 gender-discrimination complaints. They are outraged by an order that bans female guards from touching male detainees. (Navy photo/Elisha Dawkins)

The new commander of the US Southern Command told Congress on Thursday that some of the Guantánamo prison infrastructure is "deteriorating rapidly" but stopped short of seeking additional funding for new construction at the downsizing detention center.

Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, who took charge Jan. 14, also disclosed for the first time that the number of gender discrimination complaints filed by Guantánamo troops over a judge's female guard no-touch order has risen to 15.

Army Col. James L. Pohl, the judge, has for 14 months forbidden female guards from touching the five men accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks, who argue their religion forbids contact with women who aren't close relatives. The order has stirred outrage in Congress and among Pentagon brass. Now the judge is deciding whether to lift the ban and let female guards resume handling the five men as they go to and from legal meetings and court.

"Some of our female troops must continue to deal with the frustration of a temporary court order that prevents them from performing their assigned duties, even though they are all fully trained, immensely qualified, and embody the values of equality and diversity that our nation espouses to the world and holds dear," the admiral said in sworn testimony presented at the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Tidd's spokeswoman, Army Col. Lisa Garcia, elaborated on Friday that eight men and seven women had filed the sexual discrimination complaints, all soldiers. The complaints were filed between Jan. 20 and Feb. 3, 2015, she said.

On the infrastructure front, Tidd said in the written testimony that "most of the facilities constructed to temporary standards are deteriorating rapidly because of the harsh environment, ongoing mission demands and a chronic lack of funds for maintenance and recapitalization." He called housing for some of the 1,700 troops assigned to the 91-captive prison "dilapidated" and blamed rains from Hurricane Joaquin.

Later, elaborating during a Pentagon press conference, Tidd called the various prison buildings that house the captives "state of the art" and invited Washington, D.C.-based reporters down to the detention center to take a look. The problems, he said, are at "peripheral" or "support" facilities, which are shored up through sustainment funds, and handled "in a piecemeal manner that rapidly becomes more costly than investment in new construction."

The prison has a 2,000-member staff, from guards to lawyers to Coast Guard security units, most on nine-month assignments. Officers typically live in townhouses but some enlisted troops live in trailer parks that were designed as temporary accommodations for short tours of duty.

Tidd said that last year the US spent $24 million on "sustainment, restoration and modernization costs" of detention center facilities. He added that there had been a budget proposal to spend $231 million through 2018 on military construction for the war-on-terror prison -- but 90 percent of it was canceled in January 2015.

The admiral did, however, welcome a question of whether he could make use of more resources to disrupt the flow of illegal drugs and migrants to the United States.

"I do not have the ships, I do not have the aircraft, to be able to execute the detection-monitoring mission to the level that has been established for us to achieve," he told Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

Tidd testified the same day the committee confirmed Eric Fanning as Secretary of the Army.

Last year, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, placed a hold on the nomination of Fanning, the first openly gay leader of a US military service, to protest the Obama administration's efforts to close the detention center at Guantánamo. It was unclear when the full Senate would take up the nomination because Roberts' spokeswoman Sarah Little told the Associated Press on Thursday that the hold remains in place.

At a press briefing later in the day, Admiral Tidd deftly ducked a series of questions on the wisdom of closing the Guantánamo detention center and on releasing certain captives. "In the conduct of armed conflict we have to be able to detain people some place. I have no opinion on where that should be."

He also:

▪ Disclosed that two US service members, both men, had contracted the Zika virus -- one in Brazil, the other in Colombia. Both fully recovered and returned to duty without ill effects, he said. Separately, the United States accommodated a pregnant woman who was serving in the Southcom region by allowing her to return to the United States. Her tour of duty was ending anyway, Tidd added.

▪ Estimated that "100 to 150" people in Latin America and the Caribbean had left the region in a "fighter flow" to join with the Islamic State. He cited concerns, similar to his predecessor's, of ISIS' call to carry out attacks wherever they are and said Southcom was working on tracking so-called lone wolf aspirations.

▪ Cast the resumption of US-Cuban military relations as a work in progress. "It will take time to unfold," he told reporters, adding that he was assigned to NATO when the Berlin Wall fell. "As military people our responsibility is to be flexible and agile."

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